“What lead to the events where you requested the air strike in question, causing the deaths of 57 civilians?”
Kerri looked at her right arm. Tattooed. Scarred. Burned. Her campaign as a Devasian operator was written across her body. From the time she had enlisted in the police force. To the time she was recruited for wet works. And at the very end, clearing out hostile safe houses. So many friends and family had died in the conflict. Not to mention the deaths that she herself was personally being held accountable for. To what end?
The international investigators were not here to help. She wasn’t stupid, she had read the news and the internal briefings. They were out for a sense of entitled justice. In six months she would be dragged in front of the international tribunal, tried for war crimes, and most likely sentenced.
Fifteen years in the service. Did any of it even help? Did her existence just make the situation worse?
“The first mistake you are making, is thinking of Devas as a singular country. We do not have that luxury. We are a country that is deeply divided in ways you do not have to cope with. Before we can even discuss the events that you are here to investigate, you must come to terms with this very fact."
She had a smile going from ear to ear. It’s been two months since she graduated the academy to become a Devas Regulator, and she had finally gotten her deployment orders. It was her first choice. Not a popular choice by any stretch of the imagination. Most, Kerri imagined at least, would have preferred to get a job as an officer of the Capital city. Not her though, she was heading out of the capital city walls.
“Hey, I’m really worried about you getting deployed outside of the city walls.” Kerri felt arms wrap around her waist. It was Sarah. They had been in a relationship since the end of high school. Sarah was going into her third year of medical school, training to become an ER Surgeon. Top of her class too, meaning she was destined to work at the flagship hospital in the capital city.
“It’ll be fine. Most of the violence on the news has been exaggerated. On top of that, I’m mostly just there to make sure people don’t get into fights, they go to school, and the like,” Kerri replied trying to reassure her lover. It was all true to an extent. The Syvian separatists hadn’t shown any interests in the outskirts for quite some time now, retreating far into the mountains. All that was left was for people like Kerri to walk in and build some trust with the government and the people. Deva was a proud but divided nation and Kerri truly believed that it was up to her to unite the country under a common banner once again. As long as the Syvians could see that they meant no harm, and that they wanted what was best for everyone, there could be peace. Peace for the future generations.
“Maybe I should get a job in the same district as you,” Sarah retorted.
“I’d feel safer with you at the capital.” Sarah’s nose wrinkle, there was no batting around the fact. Kerri chose to put herself in harms way. But she would feel a lot better with Sarah behind the walls. No matter how much Kerri tried to downplayed the risks involved with her chosen profession, there was still risks involved. The Syvian separatists could be back. The gangs could hold her hostage. So on and so on. “Look, they run us in 4 month shifts ok? I’ll be back in 4 months. After that I’ll have four months vacation to spend all the time in the world with you. And hopefully my training base will be in the capital too so we can still see each other every night and the week days ok?”
Sarah sighed and nodded slowly, “You better come back in one piece ok? I’ll be mad if I have to pull bullets out of you.”
“You served as a Major in the Wraith Cadre? Quite the resume you have there,” the investigator commented. Kerri could feel his eyes leer up her right arm. The Wraith Cadre were……fearsome to say the least. They were known to be well trained, well disciplined, and extremely efficient and executing their missions, drawing a strong reputation internationally.
Wraiths did not conduct themselves as the quiet professional, quite the opposite. Their identities were not kept secret. They were rockstars around the international military community. Kerri herself had the Wraith emblem inked across her right shoulder cap. A skull with the Sykes Knife driven through the top. Twenty-three Xs were inked right below it in a grid pattern. Twenty-three targets executed.
Given the fearsome reputation and how each member showed off their tenure…..Kerri was starting to feel that the intimidation angle was not granting her any favors. Those in the Cadre were intimidating by design, as a way to message, “It makes no difference when we are here.” However, in no way, shape, or form, would she describe the Wraiths to be bloodthirsty
“Understand that everyone who signed up, even those who were selected into the Wraith Cadre, initially enlisted to maintain the peace.”
Two months. It took two months for Kerri to get used to the dry arid heat. Her body had acclimated. She knew now to soak her thermal shirts in cold water before heading out. The water bladder was packed with ice, her hose covered with insulation to block off the heat. And despite suffering from at this point she considered chronic dehydration for two months, she loved every second of it.
“Kerri! I heard that maybe the water pumps would begin operation soon?” a voice quipped up from the food stall. Kerri liked picking up the wraps here. For whatever reason, they had chicken that was way better than anything she could ever find in the capital. And the grapes? Down by the oasis, they had grown grapes the size of golf balls. It was hard for her to describe.
“Yes sir!” she replied cheerfully, “Hopefully by the end of the week we won’t have to send in the water trucks anymore. We’ll get to repairing that bridge right after.”
Growing up, her parents always stressed one of many truisms in the world. The chef will make the food, but it is the waiter who delivers it. Meaning, always befriend the lowly worker. It was a big part of how she built relationships within this community. Many of the brass only wanted to deal with the city council and the mayor. But her? She knew power corrupted. So she went down to the base social class. The cleaners. The shop keepers. The waiters. The boot shiner.
Especially the boot shiner. That was a man who spent all day looking at boots. He sets up his shop. He waits for customers. For most people, he is invisible. Nothing more than furniture along the town square. But this man made his money by spying people’s shoes and convincing people they needed to have their boots conditioned. Which also meant that he had a real sharp eye.
Already she had gathered one piece of actionable intelligence from him. The Regulators got to a storefront before it got hit by the local gang and arrested them red handed. It felt good. Kerri never bothered to press him for intel. But because she made sure that the boot shiner as the one who worked on all of her dress boots (despite the fact that she could spit shine them in half the time…..as does everyone who graduated the academy), he always told her the local gossip.
“We have newcomers,” the boot shiner mentioned as Kerri brought him a cup of coffee.
“There are always newcomers. Do you think they’re up to no good?”
“Hard to say,” he replied, taking a deep sip of the coffee, “A town like this doesn’t get many newcomers. This is a small town that is en route to the capital walls, so all we really get are traders. But you see that man over there? He’s new. And that one near the convenience store? He’s new as well.”
“Could be traders?”
“Doubtful. Traders will stop by this town to rest and to pick up life conveniences. My store, it’s for travelers who want to make a good impression at a business meeting. Nobody stays here for more than a day. Two at most if they have car trouble. But those people? They have been here since last week. Only you guys stay longer than three days.”
“Alright, thanks. I’ll call it in.” Kerri motioned to the radio mounted on her shoulder, “Be advised, we have a lot of new faces around town. Requesting additional patrols near the town market.”
“Copy that, we’re sending in three additional Bobcats to your location for additional security. ETA twenty minutes.”
As soon as the rumble of the Bobcats were felt through the ground, the atmosphere started to change. Kerri started to notice the eyes start to narrow among a few people around town. The Regulators had beefed up security for almost a year now. Bobcats providing extra security, especially when important cargo was being transported through, was not new. So the extra eyes that were scanning the roadways was something unsettling.
“Hey guys, when you’re rolling into town, stay fr—”
The high pitched whine of a capacitor charging pierced her ear drums. A shot of adrenaline ripped through her veins. Some of the anti vehicle rockets required an electric charg and when the capacitors were shoddy, they emitted a high-pitched squeal. These were not weapons that she was trained on, so they were not of Devas origin. These were hostile weapons. As soon as one of the Bobcats rounded the corner, she saw the side of the vehicle explode.
Her patrol quickly congregated around the vehicle assessing the damage. The patrol was well trained. Already they had set up defensive positions around the Bobcat. Four of them were keeping a chatter of gunfire to keep heads down. Sarah and another started accessing the damage.
“Can’t get into the bobcat”
“Get the breacher bar.”
“Got it open, shit. Trung is shot.”
“Pop smoke, pop smoke.”
Six pops followed by a high hiss. Smoke started to cloud the area. Bullets cut through the smoke, forming small columns and skipping up dirt. When the chatter of continuous gunfire started to die down, Kerri knew the time to move was now. Her team made their way across the street crossing in the lull of the gunfire. They tumbled into the bar. High on adrenaline, but they had managed to pull out all the occupants from the vehicle and dragged the two wounded soldiers behind them to safety.
“Get a tourniquet on that, stat!” Kerri shouted, “Don’t shoot if you don’t need to, they don’t know we’re in here. Let the other two Bobcats pull in before we head out again.” Kerri kept a keen eye out the window. If whoever initiated the attack was making movements to get to a better angle, she wanted to know. As the smoke started to clear, her heart dropped. There was a child who must had been near the bobcat before it got hit. What’s worse, smoke was clearing. She could just start making out the outline of the buildings on the other side of the road.
“Scratch that, Rico, Schmit, on me, I need you two to provide hard covering fire across the street. Dump everything you got,” Kerri ordered.
“Don’t even think about it, kid is going to be fine as long that the kid doesn’t move,” Jenkins replied back, “Reinforcements are three minutes out, it’s not worth it.”
“That vehicle gets hit again, that kid is a goner,” her mind was already made. She wasn’t even sure why she was explaining herself as she was the ranking member of the patrol. With the smoke staring to clear, she was going to have to move fast. Already she was shedding weight as fast as possible. Her rifle would only serve to get in the way. And all of her excess ammunition would be better served at going to her teammates providing cover for her. “That’s an order!”
Kerri took one last swig of water and sprinted hard. Behind her roared the cacophony of automatic fire.
“Hey kid, lets go.” It was a young boy. Maybe eight? The boy was frozen in terror, sobbing and crying out for his mother. As Kerri made her way closer, the kid shuffled away, deeper into the twisted wreckage of the Bobcat, a place where she couldn’t get into. With the smoke starting to clear, it wasn’t that much time before making the sprint back would have been suicidal. If they saw her sprint back to the Bobcat, they would for sure be loading up another antivehicle rocket.
“Hey kid, it’s me, you see me all the time,” Kerri attempted again, trying to calm her tone though aware that impatience was starting to boil over. The kid stared at her with complete fear. Slowly, as to not draw an adverse reaction, she unclasped the strap under her chin and removed her helmet, “It’s me, you know me.”
The kid stopped crying, now recognizing her face and jet black hair. He slowly climbed out of the twisted remains and into her arms.
“Hold on tight ok? We just need to get onto the other side,” Kerri explained, putting the helmet on the child and tightening the strap. Her right hand pulled out her side arm. She had already taken one round to the shoulder. Thankfully her armor stopped it. She wasn’t happy to be making the gamble again. But the Regulator creed was dear to her heart, and she wasn’t going to let cowardice get in the way.
Her focus narrowed. She signaled for her team to mag dump everything that they had to buy her as much time as possible. Anyone crossing the street at this would be visible to the other side. Kerri ran, dumping everything she had left into cutting across the road. A high pitched whine screamed through the guttural chatter of gunfire. Heat splashed on her back, sending her careening forward. She turned to her side to protect the child. As her ears were ringing, she could feel someone grab the straps of her vest, pulling her inside.
“You’re thinking of the photo where you see a female Regulator running around with a Syvian child,” Kerri immediately responded back, “Well, that’s me. Didn’t even know it was a Syvian child at the time, though that wouldn’t have changed anything.”
It was a long time ago. Fifteen years to be precise. The photo was taken during one of her earliest operations. And of course it got picked up by every single news and social media source out there. It made for a good story. Female Devasian Regulator saves Syvian child from the separatists. You couldn’t have screwed up that headline.
Kerri peered at her face through the mirrored sunglasses of her interrogator. The facade was……old. The Kerri of the past was young. Unencumbered by a decade of warfare. Her hair was straight to the maximum length of what the Regulators allowed for. She was pretty. Now? Creases ran across her face. She had a keloid running from her earlobe all the way down her neck. Her hair was now peppered. Half of it was shaved, half of it was braided tight. Above all….she was worn out.
“For a short while, it really seemed like that photo bought us a chance of things being different. Both sides seemed ready to talk again. But it only took two weeks for all of that to fall apart. In another world, we wouldn’t be talking. Unfortunately, that world is not this world.”
“Kerri, you have a teleconference, booth two. Just a word of warning, someone raised hell trying to get to you.”
She had just gotten out of the debrief. After the incident, the Regulators beefed up security and took into account everyone who was supposed to be in the town and arrested anyone who they thought looked suspicious. Those who didn’t die in the firefight, were being processed for interrogation. For Kerri? They had pulled her from patrol duty with the intent on sending her back to the capital to start her leave. It was a little bit earlier than anticipated…but after being in the situation that she was in, she had to go through medical and psych evals. Standard procedures.
“Kerri!” It was Sarah. Her eyes were red. She had been crying. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
“Yeah um, yeah. I’m fine,” Kerri replied, wearily. The debrief had happened right after she returned back to base. The adrenaline had worn off during the meeting and her body was succumbing to the adrenaline dump. She hadn’t even managed to strip off her armor at this point let alone take a shower. If she were to be completely honest, she also still felt half deaf.
And of course, because Sarah was a doctor, came the ever so familiar wall of medical help.
“Are you bleeding anywhere?”
“Your shoulder……what happened?”
“Got shot. But the armor stopped it. I already checked. Nothing got through.”
“Are your pupils dilated? Have you been evaluated for a concussion yet? Can you even hear me?”
“Sarah….Sarah!” Kerri exclaimed. She already had to deal with one wall of questions from her commanding officers during the debrief. She wasn’t about to deal with another one from her now hysterical girlfriend, “I have to get medically cleared in a half an hour. I’m not even supposed to be talking to you right now. How did you even find out that I was just in a firefight? It’s only been four hours since the incident.”
Sarah looked at her a little bit confused.
“You haven’t checked the news? You’re all over it.”
Kerri booted up the browser in another window and…indeed she was plastered all over the news. Several people had taken video of the incident and sent it to the local news. And of course, there was the picture. Dramatic would be a bit of an understatement. Someone had snapped a picture of her final sprint. It pictured her, helmetless, holding a child who was wearing her helmet, running away from the twisted remains of the Bobcat. On top of that, there was a blur coming from the corner of the photo. That must have been the antivehicle rocket that toppled both of them over.
“Hey, babe,” Kerri started. Her eyes were getting heavy. As even tempered as she was as a person, the adrenaline dump was getting to her. The incident happened in the morning and she was barraged by meeting and questions afterwards. Even at this time, the only thing she could think about was going to bed and waking up two days later. “They’re sending me back to the Capital. Given everything that’s happened, they’re rotating us out. Probably more to the benefit of the other people on my patrol but yeah, I’ll be back once I’m done with the after-action report and medical evals.”
Sarah’s eyes lit up.
“And don’t you dare bring your doctor’s bag,” Kerri retorted, even before Sarah could say a word.
“How did you come to serve in the Wraith Battalion?”
“I suppose it doesn’t matter now that the government is in tatters and it seems more and more likely that you guys are going to roll in to seize control. I suggest against it only because I already tried to seize control and now I’m here talking to you. I digress, nobody can actually sign up to be a Wraith. We are well known but asking to join is almost a disqualifier itself.”
“I imagine that photo of yours got you into the group?”
“Hah,” she retorted, “They were going to pull me from the service and march me around after that incident. As I said everyone joined initially to maintain the peace. The Wraith Cadre keeps tabs on everyone who is currently serving. If you’re a real hotshot, you get to join the expeditionary force or they absorb you into another one of the specialized units. They’re good too but they don’t do what we do. Keep in mind that other units have other jobs. Intelligence. Recon. Us? We kill. It’s easy to think that we are selected because we are good and elite. Many of us have decorated histories prior to joining up. But that’s not what they’re looking for. Look at the people who failed out of training. See their history.”
The investigator paused momentarily. His pen tapped against the table. True, the story he read were always spectacular. Several were about the last holdout of a single soldier against all odds. Others seemed to have a sheer lack of personal regard as they threw themselves into the firefight. In the grand scheme of things, Kerri’s record didn’t seem to indicate why she was selected for the program. Her actions, heroic yes. But it did little to demonstrate her proficiency in combat.
“I’m sure you’ve read up about many of the Wraith operators having survived impossible odds. Caught in the middle of the ambush, they were the lone holdout. Often times having scrounge up their dead teammate’s bodies for ammunition.”
“You didn’t lose anyone that day. Why did they select you?”
“Squad wipes are traumatic. That’s what they select for. Trauma.”
It was at a bakery. Sarah and Kerri had been coming here since the end of high school. On the other hand, it was a bit pricey. They had memories of stealing their parent’s wallets just so they could buy some of the baked goods. Kerri was sure her parents knew but they probably figured better bread than drugs for a young teenager.
Kerri had just hopped off the transport bringing her back into the city walls. Originally she was planning on dropping off her bag and changing out of her fatigues but the delay meant she had to go straight to where they had planned their date. Her heart fluttered for a bit. It had been roughly three months since they last saw each other. And of course, with everything that had transpired, all Kerri wanted at this point was comfort.
She could hear the seagulls in the sky. The skies were a brilliant blue without a cloud in the sky. It was the perfect day. Kerri took a moment to inhale the salty air. She had missed the smell. Three months in the lifeless desert and she had forgotten what it was like to live by the sea. There she was, Sarah. Sitting on the corner of the same bakery that they had always been going to. This time, instead of the dress she would normally wear, she was dressed in scrubs and a white coat. Her eyes perusing what seemed to be case files. Between the pair, Sarah was always the more studios one. Sarah didn’t even look up when a shadow covered her client files.
It was that ringing sound. Last time she heard it, a vehicle blew up behind her. Kerri stirred back awake with a pounding headache. The first thing she noticed was that she was covered in dust. As she went to brush away her hair, the second thing she noticed was that her hands were wet. Her body had been tossed several yards away towards the fountain. Sarah’s body on the other hand, was crumbled around her feet.
“Sarah, Sarah!” Kerri started to panic. It was a good thing that she didn’t make it home to drop of her bag, she still had her trauma kit on her. Glass was embedded in her body. Her breathes were short and shallow. She looked confused. Shock was starting to step in. Both of them were lying in a pool of blood, that of which Kerri was hoping was her own. The training she received in the academy was good. Practiced hands found all the major injuries. Sarah’s femoral artery was nicked. Practiced hands tightened the tourniquet around her leg to staunch the bleeding. Kerri hoped that she got to it fast enough.
Onto the next thing.
Sarah motioned, pointing to her chest. Her breaths were labored and shallow. A glass shard had cut straight through her rib cage and she couldn’t inhale. Collapsed lung maybe? Kerri moved quickly, cutting through the shirt and applying the chest seal. As she jabbed the catheter into her chest, a spurt of blood shot out and a sensation of relief washed over her, as she could hear Sarah take a deep inhale.
“I have you stabilized, you’re okay,” Kerri tried to reassure. The pearly white dress uniform had been smeared red. Kerri hadn’t even taken a minute to address her own injuries. Blood kept running down her left face and clouding her vision. She wasn’t even sure if Sarah was stabilized. Only that air wasn’t pooling in Sarah’s chest cavity, crushing her lung.
“Come on, don’t you give up on me now, we just need to get you to a hospital,” Kerri pleaded.
Trauma Kits, the ones issued to non-medics, don’t come with IV Bags. The idea was that a regulator could stabilize a person in the field long enough for a medic to get there. Even though Kerri had managed to staunch the bleeding and addressed the collapsed lung, Sarah’s blood pressure had already dropped below sustainable levels. Without more fluid to pump, her heart had finally stopped.
“You’re going to have to buy me a drink before I give you that much of my private life.”
Kerri let out a deep and weary sigh. Oddly enough, nobody had ever asked her this question. Not when she was in the Wraith Cadre. Not when they petitioned her to join the organization. They didn’t even talk about it when she was going through her psych evals. Come to think of it, even in all the media that was released about her, nobody had ever asked about the events of that day.
“I was in the Newport bombings,” Kerri replied.
“You mean, you were on site for the event?” the interviewer asked.
“No, I was one of the people injured at the Newport bombings. I was actually on leave. My fiancé at the time was one of the people killed at the event. I had just gotten off my first deployment and was supposed to meet up with her there.”
At this point there were very few things that made Kerri uncomfortable. Hard training. Years of combat. Scores of wetwork operations run. Grief from dead comrades, their names were tattooed on her left shoulder blade. Two lovers that Kerri had to bury. A decade of being an operator had hardened in every sense of the word. However, this was the one that gave her pause and made her stomach churn.
It wasn’t grief. In a way, Kerri wished it was. Those tears had dried up long ago. It wasn’t as if Kerri longed for Sarah’s presence. She had….moved on? If that's what moved on meant. The feeling that was making her stomach churn wasn’t the fact that someone close to her was dead. The feeling that was making her stomach churn was that her feelings were empty and hollow. Kerri wanted to feel grief. But many of the memories had evaporated away from father time. What she feared, was that the very feelings that made humans human, had also died.
“They actually reached out to me after the funeral. Like I said, they select for Trauma.”
Wraith Cadre. They searched for broken people in all walks of life. Gave them a sense of purpose. And then pointed them to high value targets. The unified feeling of revenge, is what made that unit ruthlessly effective in their duties.
“Once all your squad mates were out, what made you run back to wreckage to save the child,” questioned the host. Kerri was being paraded on one of the national news outlets.
“We’re all Devas in this country. My child is your child. And your child is mine. If we lose that vision, then we have no hope for this country.” Kerri replied. She gave a plastic smile. Careful observation of her eyes could tell that the emotions were forced. Kerri knew now why she was pulled early from deployment. With the photograph that was taken of her saving the Syvian child, the Devas Media Group wanted to march her around to build hearts and minds. It hadn’t even been a week since the Newport bombings and her docket was already filled with media appearances. Orders were just that, orders. Grief would have to come later, “Listen. That Syvian child? Could be calling himself something else if he was born under different circumstances. A kid is a kid. A kid doesn’t deserve to have their life cut short.”
The speech was written for her. This entire media appearance was carefully crafted and scripted. Normally Kerri would have been against the entire concept of not giving her own opinion on the matter. But at the very least, this time around, she believed what she was saying. It was a small consolation prize given that she had to put on a mask three, four times a day for the past week. Today was different though. After the morning interview, she had a wake to attend.
“Well, that’s all the time that we have! Sorry but you know how the TV execs are,” the host said with a cheery smile. It was a lie. This was all scripted. This wouldn’t be put on air for at least another month, most likely two.
Tears slowly welled up as she exited the recording studio and into the unmarked black sedan. Hadn’t even been a week. Kerri buried her face into her hands, wiping away some of the makeup which now contained small red flecks from scabbed over blood. Her face had been cut up and marred from the bombings, but for the most part her injuries were mostly minor. Hearing was a little bit off, the doctor said that would come back. She was diagnosed with a minor concussion, but for the most part Kerri was coherent. Her handler was the one taking care of most of her day to day responsibilities such as driving and keeping her on schedule, Kerri only had to be a face. Depressingly enough though, all of her interviews had been taking from an angle that highlighted the right side of her face. The one unmarked by damage.
Of course, news had come out of the Newport bombings at this point. Despite being built into a national hero, there was no mention of Kerri in any capacity. Devas was rocked by six separate explosions including the one Kerri was in. When it’s just one person who is killed, that name gets put on TV. When it got to a dozen deaths, you get a spread of all the victims. At around fifty, all you get is a number. Sarah’s name wasn’t even mentioned anywhere outside of the local obituary.